By: Shannon Ralph
James Hart is a soft-spoken man with freckles and striking pale blue eyes. When you talk with him, his smile appears easily and often. He is kind and funny and has an infectious, if somewhat nervous, laugh. When I first approached James about being interviewed for this article, he admitted to having mixed emotions about telling his story. You see, James and I come from the same small town in Kentucky. From the same family, actually. James is my cousin. And he’s a transgender man.
To say that the South is a hostile place to be transgender, whilst certainly true, is also a gross understatement. Growing up gay in the South can be daunting. Growing up transgender is almost certainly fraught with the sort of relentless conflict that can easily drown a person. Religion and family and tradition rule in the particular neck of the Bible Belt where James and I were raised. My early life in Kentucky was all about family and church—two areas of life that can often prove extremely difficult for a person coming out as transgender. Even if he does not experience overt hostility—southern discrimination can be surprisingly covert and surreptitious—a transgender person trying to live authentically in the South risks losing everything he knows and loves. Everything. This can be terribly isolating.
I would like to thank my cousin, James, for his willingness to speak openly and honestly about his experiences living as a transgender man. I would also like to thank my large, loud, wonderfully inappropriate family—in advance—for the way in which I am certain they will overwhelmingly embrace James for the courage it takes to share his story. It’s a love story, after all. Love of family and love of self—two of the most complex, yet fundamental, of all human relationships.
So, James, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Yeah, for sure. I am 32 years old. I live in Chicago with my girlfriend, Melissa, and our cat, Gizzy (who, ironically, was born without a tail). After graduating from college in Indiana, I headed to graduate school in Texas. I worked as a trainer for a restaurant franchise there, travelling around the country. That was when I first visited Chicago and fell in love with the city. I met my girlfriend there, and moving to Chicago just felt right. I’ve put graduate school on hold for a little while, and I’m currently working two jobs as a bartender to save up money for surgery.
When did you first know that you were different from other kids?
Always. When I was young, I always felt left out. Like I didn’t really belong with either gender. I was pushed into wearing dresses because my great-grandmother proudly made Sunday church dresses for three generations of women in my family. Being the baby of the family certainly didn’t help. But when I played with the neighborhood kids, I was all boy. Between the younger siblings of my brothers’ friends and church kids, I always had boys I could do “boy” things with. I started playing organized sports. I was the stats keeper for the middle school football team. I loved football, but was never allowed to play. I threw myself into sports—boys’ sports.
Does any particular experienced stand out in your mind?
When it comes to gender-specific roles, it always comes back to clothes for me. My mother always wanted me to wear dresses, but there came a time in my childhood where I started to question my mother’s authority. She tended to be superficial and overly concerned with how people would view us. I remember one time I cut up my dresses and was forced to wear jeans and one of my brother’s button-up shirts to church. That was a turning point. Regardless of the punishment I received, I never wore my great-grandmother’s dresses again after that day.
What was it like growing up as a transgender kid in Kentucky?
Honestly, I never truly lived as a transgender person in Kentucky. When I lived in Kentucky, growing up, I identified as a female and was labeled a lesbian. I’ve been attracted to females since I was a child. I started my transition after moving to Cincinnati, Ohio. I was 22 years old at the time and performing as a drag king. I did move back to Kentucky at one point and felt dejected and ashamed, so I did my best to hide my identity from my family and friends.
Do you think being from the South made your experience more difficult?
Yes, I think so. I am 32 years old now, and I’ve lived in countless states and have lived numerous different lives. I lived “stealth” for 3 years in Texas—excluding my girlfriend, only two people knew that I was transgender. It felt necessary in that time and place.
When did you come out to your family? How did they react?
I came out as transgender to my mom first. She came to one of my drag shows. After the show was over—drunk—I told her that I was different, that I always had been, and that I was tired of hiding it. She told me I was “sick” and that it was “just a phase.” That was it. End of discussion. For five years, I did not see my mom and step-dad. I went eight years without seeing my brother and my nephew. I only saw my dad and step-mom after a six-year stretch because of a heart attack. My identity as a transgender man was a truth that I was finally willing to accept, but my family didn’t know how to accept me. I’ve never had a parent say to me, “I support you.” It was easier to leave—to break those ties—and find myself before I was ready to answer questions from my family. I was bitter, angry and deeply hurt.
What is your relationship like with your family today?
I think I have a fairly healthy relationship with my father and step-mother. And for what it’s worth, I would say my step-dad and I have a pretty good relationship. My mother will always be a different story. I’ve learned to keep them all at a safe distance to protect myself—to live my life for me. I do believe that they have finally accepted that this is who I am. I feel like they love me, but we aren’t really involved in one another’s lives. They don’t ask about my career, my education, my goals, or my relationships. They ask me about my health and wellness—the bare minimum. It’s easier for them that way. I believe it’s about guilt sometimes. I try to keep in touch, but I can’t force them to talk to me. I can’t force them to use the proper pronouns when they talk about me. I continue to call them, to drive to see them, to send cards— because that is what I want. I still want a relationship. I still want a family.
When did you begin presenting full-time as a man? How did that feel?
At 24 years old, I was living in southern Indiana and about two years into hormone replacement therapy. With both sets of parents out of the picture and no peers to judge me, I changed my name and started a new job. It was important for me to keep James as my first name (I was originally given the name Jami at birth) because all my friends in high school called me James. It was easy for me to pass as a straight male. At the time, I was dating a woman who had always identified as a lesbian. We lived in a small town called Princeton where everyone knew everyone’s business, but no one knew my secret. I was James Hart, heterosexual male. No questions asked.
What are some of the challenges you face as a transgender man?
Many of the challenges I’ve faced, I created myself. I am a people pleaser, so I’ve let relationships determine who I am in the past. In my first serious relationship, I was “outed” in a professional setting to “protect” my girlfriend’s identity as a lesbian. It became a joke. I became a joke. My second serious relationship forced me into “stealth” mode (as I called it) almost instantly. In my family, my status as a trans man is always the elephant in the room. It can honestly be terrifying at times, but I continue to reach out. When my family is ready to ask questions, I am ready to answer them.
What are some of the stupid/intrusive/rude questions you have been asked?
The #1 question I am asked is, “Do you have a penis?”
What is a common misconception people have about transgender people that you would like to set straight (so to speak)?
I think a common misconception is that once a person starts HRT, they change who they are as a person. In fact, the opposite was true for me. The moment I started passing, I felt more confident than I had in years. I believed in myself. I looked different, but I was the same person on the inside. I was more myself than I had ever been.
Because it’s been relatively easy for me to pass as a heterosexual male, I’ve been very picky in the past about who I’ve told. I was always that guy who sat across from ignorance of all kinds smiling and nodding when rude comments were made. Never standing up for myself. Never speaking out. I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I live in Chicago now and I want to live authentically. I want to be loud and proud and active in the transgender community.
In recent weeks, Caitlyn Jenner has become a strong presence in the media. Like others, I applaud her bravery. Sharing her story makes trans people accessible—makes us real. At work a few weeks ago, a rude comment was made about Caitlyn. For the first time in my life, I made it publicly known that such comments would not be tolerated around me anymore. I will no longer justify or rationalize ignorance. One of the many reasons I moved to Chicago was for the community diversity. I need to find others with whom I can relate. I need to know that I am not alone in this world. However brief my life might be, I need to live it.
Is there anything you would like to say to transgender youth struggling with who they are?
You’re only given one life, so live it. Stay strong. Be proud of yourself and always stay true to who you are. You aren’t alone in this world, and yes, one person can make a difference.
I recently went home to Kentucky for a family reunion and met up with some old high school friends. I was nervous as all get out when we first met up, but after a few childhood stories were shared it was like I’d never left. Later that night, one of the guys leaned over and told me something I will never forget. “James,” he said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I like you better now. You really are a happier person.” And I am.